The Good: Awesome Asian-inspired anti-heroic fantasy (say that five times fast) with a cast of unusual suspects thrown together in the spirit of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the Dynasty Warriors franchise.
The Bad: During the first and second parts of the book I struggled to feel an emotional connection to the larger-than-life characters, but in the final section each of them lived up to their legends and came to life for me.
The Ugly Truth: Never Die is a self-contained standalone, so there’ll be no heckling for ‘finish the series’, but I for one am already crying out for more. This is easily one of the best self-published novels I have read. Ever.
The Review: I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again – this is Guardians of the Galaxy meets Dynasty Warriors. And it’s genius. On the face of it, it’s vibrant and violent and very much ‘what you see is what you get,’ but once you get into it you realise this action-packed epic has a hidden heart that pays homage to the hope, hubris and heroism of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
A warrior who refuses to wield one of her swords, a bandit, a fat man, a warrior monk, a leper, and a child who wouldn’t be out of place in a corn circle walk into a bar. Oh, and apart from the kid, they’re walking (un)dead.
Sounds like the start of a joke, right?
NEVER DIE is no laughing matter.
In Never Die, SPFBO winner Rob J. Hayes whisks readers away to an alternate Orient, a world woven with wuxia, wonder and woe. Thrown straight into the action, readers are introduced to Itami Cho, otherwise known as the Whispering Blade, who is brought back to life by Ein, a strange eight-year old boy, who has resurrected her to join him on his quest to kill the Emperor of Ten Kings. But to do so, they will need to gather a band of legendary heroes to help them take down their enemy, each more fantastic and fantastical that the last. Except, before they can be brought into the fold, they need to be brought back to life – at least, once Cho and co. kill them first.
Sounds simple, right? Raise a band of heroes (pun intended) and bring down the bad guy.
There’s more going on behind the scenes, and even after learning that Ein’s powers come from a death god, there’s clearly a missing piece of the puzzle which even the main cast haven’t figured out yet.
Our heroes are a veritable who’s who of your (un)usual suspects, complete with a big bad to beat. Courageous warrior with a code of honour? Check. A fast-talking fast-walking bandit out for himself? Check. A larger-than-life fighter with an appetite for adventure and alcohol (and food)? Check. Not forgetting a leper who is as deadly as he is ‘dying’, a monk whose fists and focus are his only weapons, and the mystic who brought them all together (in this case a child…). And behind each of these looms the legends of their own lifetimes, earning them names like the Whispering Blade, Emerald Wind and Iron Gut.
Despite sounding very much character driven, Never Die is a quest-based fantasy, and the characters are as much along for the ride as the reader is. Ein drives his not-so-merry-band ever east, to face off against the Emperor of Ten Kings, which you know will end in a superhero-style showdown. However, the beauty of this story is how the character-driven and quest-based fantasy defies expectations, and at the last minute pulls off something entirely unexpected, though more on that later…
And up against our reluctant heroes is a host of ‘yokai’ (from Japanese folklore: spirits, ghosts, demons and monsters) that could’ve walked right out of a Dungeons and Dragons bestiary. Some of these creatures are grotesque, others as unnerving as they are unnatural, but each of them have a distinctness to them that adds to the worldbuilding.
On the note of unnerving, throughout Never Die, something nagged at me. There was something that didn’t quite sit with me. And this is intentional – Hayes leaves a breadcrumb trail that makes you question the path you’re being led down. And whilst I knew there was something amiss, I genuinely did not see where it was going. Twists are hidden within reveals, and reveals within twists, and whilst these are saved until the finale, what a finale it was!
I’m jumping around all over the place with this review, but going back a step to worldbuilding, this one came almost pre-packed for me. That’s not a criticism at all. What I mean to say is that without even realising it, the world appeared ready-made from the pages as I read, from the setting, to the architecture, to the food and drink. Not to stress the use of the term ‘Asian-inspired,’ I picked up a number of influences including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. And the use of storytelling – the legends behind the heroes – adds a history, a legacy to this fully realised world. It’s amazing how much Hayes has managed to squeeze into this book without overstuffing it. In fact, there’s enough material here to expand upon the story and go to two, three, maybe even four books.
Jumping around again, the only criticism I would have is that whilst I can easily identify the characters, and choose a favourite (Emerald Wind) I didn’t feel emotionally connected with them until the final third of the book. That’s part because they’re not very likeable at times, and part because they’re heroes, or at least the people that live in the shadows of the heroes they are made out to be in the stories. Regardless, whilst this was something I was concerned about when reading the story, by the end I was satisfied, and found myself empathising with each of them.
This is the first novel I have read of Hayes’ and he has certainly won me over as a fan. His style reminds me of David Gemmell – simple, straightforward storytelling and punchy prose that delivers on the consequences of its actions, whilst playing on the heroic-fantasy themes of honour, redemption, and sacrifice, as well as the anti-heroic themes of hubris, revenge and sacrilege.
In closing, this is a standalone that stands on its own two feet but with plenty of mileage left in it for more. It’s entertaining and it is exhilarating, and whilst it isn’t a doorstopper or a multi-book epic vying to be an ‘Eastern Lord of the Rings’ this is a summer blockbuster which blows the box office wide open. Well worth the price of admission, which will leave audiences hanging on till the end of the credits for more.
More, Hayes. MORE OF THIS!